September 12, 2006 Higher education at a crossroads by Shirley Ort
I graduated from a rural high school in Michigan,
never expecting to go to college. My family simply did not
have the means.
That changed when Mr. Reynolds, my high school principal,
knocked on our door a few weeks after graduation with a college
application in hand. "Don't worry if you don't have money,"
he told me. "If they accept you, they will find a way
to help you stay there."
With that push, my life changed.
Fast forward to 2006. I'm in Chapel Hill and am UNC's associate
provost and director of scholarships and student aid. There
is no university in this country where I'd rather be.
Why? Because this university has made a real commitment to
need-based aid - to keeping a Carolina education both accessible
In 2003, we created the Carolina Covenant to ensure that
low-income students who are accepted to Carolina can get a
degree here without incurring debt. The program has been emulated
by a host of other universities, public and private. Last
year, we opened a new access route to Carolina when the Jack
Kent Cooke Foundation selected us to participate in a national
program that helps community college students earn UNC degrees
after completing two years at a community college. Students
from Alamance, Durham Tech and Wake Tech community colleges
will benefit directly from this program.
And beginning today, Carolina will host a three-day, national
conference, "The Politics of Inclusion: Higher Education
at a Crossroads," to explore issues of affordability
Over the next few days, 150 state and federal policy makers,
lawmakers, economists, researchers, business leaders, educators
and foundation representatives will convene here to consider
how politics, policy and practice determine who gets to go
to college and where and how they pay for it.
Given the growing number of low-income youth in America,
the issue of access to higher education is approaching a national
crisis. And that's at the same time that this country's need
for a highly-trained, well-educated workforce has never been
We have received funding from five conference sponsors: the
Lumina Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Spencer
Foundation, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the College
Foundation of North Carolina.
A range of featured speakers will challenge conference participants
to contribute their expertise to these issues, learn from
each other and formulate proposed solutions and action steps
that will shape a leadership agenda for the future.
Panelists will tackle topics including the changing demographics
of American higher education; economic, political and social
objectives of higher education in the 21st century; the politics
of who goes to college and where; challenges threatening access
to college; and new ways to foster access and inclusion. Specific
issues will include rising college costs, illegal immigrant
children and admissions preferences.
The final day of the conference will focus on recently created
programs within higher education that target high-achieving
students from low-income families.
While espousing the principles of access, equity and equal
opportunity for low-income students, most institutions are
offering increasing amounts of non-need-based aid to lure
more full-paying middle- and upper-middle income students.
Increasingly, universities construct financial aid packages
that will better position them in the marketplace, often with
secondary regard to furthering educational opportunity.
This is all happening in an era of widening inequalities,
and the economic stakes of getting a college degree are higher
than ever. Figures from 2004 show that only 44 percent of
low-income students who score in the top quartile academically
attend a four-year college. Few low-income students can afford
college without meaningful offers of grant and scholarship
At Carolina, we believe that higher education institutions
- and especially public universities - have a special obligation
to help solve the access problem. There's a social compact
between public institutions and society - public institutions
are publicly funded. Private institutions (as well as public
institutions) enjoy tax-exempt status and other tax breaks.
With these benefits, I would argue, comes a moral obligation
to act for the public good, not just for institutional gain.
The Carolina Covenant is this University's promise to all
students who work hard, make the grade and earn the opportunity
to attend Carolina. It's our promise that their family's income
will not stand in the way of their education.
And it reaches directly into this community. Some of the
more than 900 Covenant Scholars enrolled this fall come from
right here in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and the surrounding counties.
My sincere hope is that the advocates for access will continue
to find their voices on the campuses across America, and speak
for those students who cannot speak for themselves, particularly
when negotiating for increased federal and state investment,
and for responsible use of institutional resources.
In short, we need to change the politics of exclusion into
the politics of inclusion. This week's conference in Chapel
Hill is a significant step in that direction.
Shirley Ort is associate provost and director of scholarships
and student aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill. She lives in Chapel Hill and can be reached at email@example.com.
To learn more about this week's conference, visit www.unc.edu/inclusion.